Wednesday, December 27, 2006

I believe in Santa Claus...

'Tis the season when many atheists, Christians, and Pagans alike are asking themselves whether to tell their kids that Santa Claus is a real person or just a story.

This question is a stock theme in Christmas movies and specials, and I've always been fascinated by the treatment of it. In particular I spent way too much time as a kid contemplating the solutions found in Christmas specials such as The Year without a Santa Claus and that Rankin-Bass cartoon special with the mice of Twas the Night Before Christmas.

In The Year without a Santa Claus, I love the part where Santa Claus -- incognito -- heartfully sings "There's no question in my mind that he does exist!" That has got to be one of my all-time favorite lines anywhere in all of the literary arts just because it's so surreal. It's as if I were reading along in Pride and Prejudice and during one of their garden walks Elizabeth turns to Mr. Darcy and says "Wait a minute... Do we really exist or are we just fictional characters?"

I don't know if all of you have seen that cartoon with the mice as many million times as I have, so since it's less famous, I'll give you a quick run-down: The nerdy poindexter too-smart-for-his-own-britches brainiac mouse writes a letter to the editor of the local paper explaining that Santa Claus doesn't exist, and Santa Claus takes offense and decides he won't be giving any presents to anyone in the whole town. (Nice, huh?) So the others convince poindexter to believe in Santa and to fix the town's special clock that was built to placate Santa with Christmas music.

The mouse cartoon has an interesting musical number that gives an intriguing argument against skepticism. (I'm typing this from memory, so feel free to correct me if I've made any errors):

There's more to the world than meets the eye,
when doubt's in your mind give your heart a try,
let up a little on the wonder why
and give your heart a try.

What would Spring be without the Easter Bunny?
Like a rainbow that doesn't end in money.
And a Valentine would certainly look stupid
without a cupid
so let his arrow in your heart.
That would be a start.

The musical number "I Believe in Santa Claus" (from The Year without a Santa Claus) has a similar theme. The skeptical kid's dad sings about seeing Santa himself as a kid and hearing Santa say to him the following:

"So you're too old for Santa Claus?"
he said with a smile,
"Then you're too old for all the things
that make a life worthwhile.
For what is happiness but dreams,
and do they all come true?
Look at me and tell me, son,
what is real to you."

Like I said, I've spent way too much time trying to figure out what these songs could possibly mean. I think it's very likely I've spent more time contemplating them than the songwriters did before they were recorded. And the more I try to figure them out, the more I feel like I'm Mr. Spock trying to make some sense of these unfathomable humans.

On the one hand, the two songs above seem to take a very negative and dismissive attitude towards people who refuse to let a little magic into their lives. Yet interestingly they seem to be arguing that you should believe your cherished myths even though they're not true. In other words, their argument against the skeptic is not that he's wrong, but rather that by pointing out that the myths are fiction, he's being a big spoil-sport and raining on everyone's parade.

The Polar Express is a more recent movie covering this same question, and one that -- thanks to my kids -- I'm well on my way to having seen and contemplated as much as I have these other two.

The Polar Express also seems to make the point that you should believe for the sake of believing. But it doesn't belabor the point with a musical number like the other two. This one takes an entirely different strategy, one which I find about a hundred times more hilarious. I don't know if they're just following the book or what, but these writers basically seem to have observed the following:

"Hey, if our goal is to convince the skeptical characters to believe in Santa Claus -- and we've set the story in a fantasy universe where Santa Claus really does exist -- why bother persuading the skeptics to overlook the lack of evidence? Why not just show them the evidence?"

So that's what they do. The doubting kids get a free train ride to the North Pole where they get to meet Santa in person, and see all of his magic in action -- the flying reindeer, stopping time at midnight, fitting billions of presents into a magic bag -- the works!!!

The result? The doubting kids are convinced that, yes, Santa Claus really does exist. I think that's the best solution ever to this problem!!! Hell, that'd be enough to convince me!!! :D

(As long as it was reproducible...)

Personally, I don't think it makes Christmas any less fun to realize that the Santa story is just fiction like many other fun stories we like to tell at Christmas time. That's what it was to me as a kid. I don't have any recollection of ever having thought that Santa Claus was real or of discovering he's not, and I'm certain that's the sort of thing my anecdote-oriented brain would have saved.

Even though my Dad wanted all of us kids to believe Santa was real, as far as I recall none of us ever did. I suspect that my mom may have been secretly slipping us hints that it's really just a fun story. My mom is a bit of a natural skeptic in that she's not shy about her opinion that it's absurd to believe in things like superstitions, astrology, ESP, etc.

You may be protesting right about now "But isn't she a believing Mormon?" It turns out that's a big part of it. The thing is that my mom likes to maintain a wall of separation between "Mormon truth" and other types of supernatural-not-backed-by-evidence beliefs that many people hold. She doesn't like people to notice parallels between the two.

After all, if we notice that the Santa story isn't real -- but we believe it just for the joy of believing -- there's a danger of wondering "Hmm, and what about that other Christmas story...?"


Cyn Bagley said...

Oh wow... I believe in Santa, and elves, and leprachauns (or is it lepracondoms.???) anyway... fantasy is very good for the mind, helps with the creativity inherent in everyone...

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Cynthia!!!


Especially the lepracondoms, lol ;-)

T Wanker said...

You mean Rudolph isn't real? I'm so traumatized.

Actually Santa Claus is an excellent concept for creating the disconnect in children that they will need to possess to thrive in a religious culture later in life.

Lepracondoms? Aren't they those little guys with funny hats that spring out of nowhere and have Lucky Charms that are magically delicious?

Just one of many said...

We all need to believe in something that brings happiness into our lives. We eventually out grow these little delusional destractions, but they serve to help us dream and forget about the everyday grind we endure! Right now I believe in fantasizing that Matthew Mconohunk is my current for me!!

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey T. Wanker!!!

Do you think belief in Santa is conducive to religious belief?

I've always thought of it as something that's more likely to make someone question religion, as in "some say Santa is real, some believe he is real, yet he is not real, therefore I can't just trust that the beliefs of others are right."

However, it's possible that's not the typical effect. After all, belief in Santa has been around a long time, and it's not clear that it has eroded belief in God.

Hey Joom!!!

An active fantasy life is a wonderful thing, isn't it?

T Wanker said...


I don't know if the concept of Santa Claus increases faith in God, but he certainly doesn't detract. The claims of many religions are just as or are more fantastical than the Santa Claus myth.

Santa Claus provides two separate functions that I see for promoting religious participation:

1. Santa Claus teaches children to treat myth as metaphor. A healthy does of myth as metaphor can keep someone involved in a religious faith throughout their life. Even Mormonism wouldn't be half bad if everything wasn't taken so literally.

2. Santa Claus socializes children to the concept of a mutual societal delusion. All three of the shows you mentioned in your post, not to mention Miracle on Thirty Fourth Street as another example, promote belief over skepticism for the greater societal good. And what kid won't believe for presents? And what mortal won't believe to avoid death?

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey T. Wanker!!!

Those are very good points.

Regarding Miracle on 34th Street -- I know it's kind of a glaring omission not to include it here since it's probably the most classic example of this theme (aside from the essay "Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus"). The only reason I didn't mention Miracle is because I've only seen it once, so I don't have the same kind of detailed analysis of it as I do for these others.

Cyn Bagley said...

Myth as metaphor is not a bad thing... I use it in my writings when I want to point out an emotional reality. AND, without a little irrationality, many discoveries would not have been made i.e. chemistry (octal configuration) and others...

Dreams made real.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Cynthia!!!

That's true, it's a useful device and a rich means of expression.

m said...

My parents were very to the point when it came to it. They told us very early on that Santa Claus doesn't exist and Jesus was not really born in December. So xmas was never a big deal to any of us. And we had no childhood trauma.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Montchan!!!

That's cool. I kind of prefer the direct and straight-forward approach.

Sister Mary Lisa said...

I love how excited you get over the old favorite Christmas shows.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks SML!!!

I should do that "6 weird things" meme and include this little wacky hobby... ;-)

Kalv1n said...

You know, it's strange, but mormons are very compartmentalized in that way. Just like how they deal with evolution. Sounds like your kids need a break from holiday movies.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Kalvin!!!

LOL, don't worry -- my kids got a bunch of non-Christmas-related videos for Christmas, and they're watching those now. :D

I agree about compartmentalizing -- I've been thinking about it ever since I wrote the above.

I think in a lot of cases it's just that the Mormon in question is convinced that spiritual/church authority trumps all other ways of taking in information. So on any subject where the church has made a statement, the church is assumed to be right. This doesn't mean that the Mormon in question is incapabale of using reason, logic, and objective evidence. It's just that s/he regards it as a fallback techinque for handling questions that are outside the scope LDS doctrine.

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Anonymous said...

Hi Chanson,

My own experience with believing in Santa Claus as a child taught me how it feels to really believe in something mythological. It's an experience that I can apply to other imaginary belief systems.

I think it's healthy for children to be imaginative. It's part of being a child. And most of all, it's fun! So, we celebrate Christmas and Santa Claus comes to our house, even though we don't believe in Jesus or God. We don't believe in Santa Claus either. ;)

I hope you're doing well. Best wishes to you, and I hope you have a Happy New Year.


Gluby said...

I think T. Wanker hit the nail right on the head as to why I'm so reticent about allowing my children to adhere to silly myths.

Interestingly, I would compare it to something an effectively New Order Mormon friend told me a while ago. She has been on the periphery of the church, and is a die-hard left-wing liberal who is very aware of her divergence from the church's right-wing stances. In other words, hardcore compartmentalization. She had left the church before, but was currently back in it (in large part, I think, because she is a single mother of three children, one of them 12 years old and autistic, going to school and desperately in need of the social support network Mormonism can provide).

I talked to her a few times about the church, trying to gently put two and two together for her. But what was interesting is when I told her about the Masonic origin of the temple ceremony.

She explained, to my utter astonishment, that that didn't bother her at all. She had been raised a Mason, and had gone to some kind of youth Mason meetings for girls where they gather together for uber-secret meetings where they are made to swear oaths that they will not discuss what occurs in the meetings and then do silly and domestic things during the meeting. It's ridiculous, like a sort of cabalistic Young Women's.

No harm in it, right? What it does is accustom women in Masondom to secretiveness. After all, if it is harmless for us, certainly the men do nothing more harmful. Growing up with such secretiveness, one's first instinct when someone talks about secret meetings and exclusiveness is, so what?

So, with such a background, the sacred secretness of the church, the secret temple handshakes and the pay lay ale's, the Masonic origins -- none of it bothered her. In fact, it was faith-promoting.

It's, as someone on the semi-apologetic Mormon journal Sunstone advocated and Simeon commented about, "spiritual inoculation." Inoculating people against rationalism, against the normal and logical skepticism that would normally occur in response to such things.

However, I think Makurosu has something of a point too in saying that it can be a healthy inoculatory exposure to true-believing superstitious experience and mass social delusion. But I suspect that Makurosu's experience is atypical, more an artifact of being raised as a critical thinker. In other words, for those of us raised freethinkers, there's arguably less risk that childhood belief in Santa Claus will prep us for religious self-delusion.

For people on the periphery of religion who might not feel comfortable teaching their children a fearless, unapologetic, actively-critically-thinking atheism, though, I think results will not be so reliable.

However, even for atheistically-raised children, I think it may still be counterproductive. Children grow up accustomed to swallowing such things and engaging in the mass social delusion, and find it enjoyable, especially given the conflict of interest (i.e. believe and you will get extra gifts). It may create a draw that remains with them, such that essentially anti-rational argument Eight Hour Lunch isolates in his comment (you must believe because... you just do) may have a draw on them later in life for religion.

What was intended as inoculation against superstition and participation in mass social delusion instead gives children a taste for it, infusing those things with positive feelings.

Great post, CLH! I'm linky-linking you too!

Gluby said...

Oh, and for the record, Santa Claus in our household is not real. My four-year-old boy has a very firm grasp of reality and unreality. In fact, we gained a little extra legitimacy by claiming credit for all the gifts and taking the boys to see bellydancers!

Bull said...

I remember sitting next to my mother in the theater while my family watched "The Polar Express." The movie really manipulates the heart strings when it tells you that you just have to believe. If you'll only believe then you'll realize it's real. If you stop believing, it will still be real, but you'll be blinded and forget the actual, real experiences that proved its reality.

Maybe it was my imagination, but I could sense that she was feeling the Spirit and that the movie was making the point she so dearly wanted to make with me about the church.

Son, how can you deny your previous beautiful testimony of the church? You KNEW it was real. You've allowed doubts to cloud your thinking and blind your mind to the proofs that you've received. Why can't you just believe? If you'll just leave your doubts and believe you'll see how beautiful and real it is.

But, I'm thinking that the ridiculousness of the moment was obvious even to her.

Ironically, I don't doubt that she feels that the point of the Polar Express is true with regards to the church even though it's rubbish when it comes to Santa Claus.

Why doesn't the opposite happen? Why don't people realize that they've been manipulated into believing a beautiful, comforting lie when they see how it works with Santa Claus. They have no more proof of Jesus Christ or God than Santa Claus and can feel the Spirit in the Polar Express, but somehow it's different.

Freckle Face Girl said...

I never believed in Santa either...or at least I knew the truth at a young age (like most of life's secrets). I agree that Christmas is still fun.

BTW, my ultra TBM brother & his wife have decided to be very truthful with their kids. I think it has more to do with the fact they want the appreciation for the presents. :)

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Guys!!!

I just got back from my New Year's trip to find all of these great insights!!!

It's a complicated question, and it seems like results vary... ;-)

At the New Year's weekend I attended, there was one couple with a bright girl around three or four years old, and the parents were very intent on preserving the Père Noël (Santa Claus) illusion for her. Another couple there recounted their adventures trying to stop their kid (five or six years old) from explaining to all the other kids in kindergarten that Santa isn't real...

Anonymous said...

I love the way your mind works Carol. You really are a work of art in every sense of the word. What a great thing to have you back blogging again.

Personally I stopped believing in everything a few years ago. What I could believe today I could disbelieve tomorrow. And that just got a little too complicated for me. So I gave up believing in anything and started going with what was on the table in front of me in the moment.

Santa Claus will always have a place in my heart and in front of my hearth. I can't explain why or how but Santa is mine to enjoy however it works for me in the moment. I don't need to believe in him, I just need to be able to enjoy him once in awhile. And I do. Thanks for reminding me of that.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Tom!!!

We enjoy Santa at our house too!!!

The kids seem to like the Grinch even better though. By Christmas Eve they were reciting the complete Christmas Eve: First Santa comes and brings presents, then the Grinch comes and takes them away, then he brings them back. :D